A longtime restaurateur from North Bend, Neb., who was found dead Wednesday in the Platte River, made a lasting impression on the young people who worked for him.
LeRoy Bird, 68, a former owner of the Rawhide Steak House on U.S. Highway 30, had been missing since Tuesday evening when he failed to return from a waterfowl hunting trip. Colfax County Attorney Denise Kracl said Bird was found about 11 a.m. by search and rescue workers.
Brian Jurgens, who is a partner in the Rawhide Steak House with one of Bird's children, said generations of high school students from the North Bend area grew up working at the restaurant. Jurgens said the walls of the popular eatery are lined with prom photos of current and past employees.
“I've known him since I began working for him as a high school kid when he took over the steak house in 1978,” Jurgens said. “LeRoy was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful man. He meant a lot to a lot of people here in North Bend.”
Bird's body was discovered just south of County Road 2 in Dodge County, Kracl said. A small overturned boat and Bird's Chesapeake Bay retriever, Lucky, were found Tuesday afternoon near a cabin.
Jurgens, who often hunted with Bird, said the dog is in good health.
Bird, Jurgens said, was an avid hunter and fisherman who knew the Platte River well.
“He was always fishing or hunting on the river or taking the kids camping,” Jurgens said. “We used the dog to try to find him (Tuesday night) because we were hoping he could pick up his scent.”
Kracl said an autopsy has been ordered. She said it doesn't appear that foul play is involved.
Jurgens said that he was unaware of any health problems Bird may have had and that Bird seemed to be in good health when the two of them were duck hunting just two weeks ago.
“LeRoy hardly ever missed a day of work,” Jurgens said. “I had really never seen him sick except for maybe a cold.”
Bird was last seen leaving home about 6 a.m. Tuesday en route to a cabin near Rogers, Neb., on the Platte River. He was reported missing at 6 p.m. when he didn't come home.
Bird and his wife, Barb, took over the Rawhide Steak House in 1978, then sold it in 2003. They repurchased the restaurant at a foreclosure sale in 2006 and sold it to their son, David, in January.
David Bird brought in Jurgens and his wife, Julie, to run the restaurant. Jurgens said LeRoy Bird would stop in once or twice a week to see how things were going.
“He'd ask about the price of meat and how the kids were doing,” Jurgens said. “He liked the changes we've made remodeling the place, and he would offer advice.
“He was like a father figure to a lot of kids who grew up working here that he'd seen go off to school and get married.”
LeRoy and Barb Bird are the parents of seven children and 19 grandchildren with another on the way, Jurgens said.
Bird began his career cooking at Gorat's Steak House in Omaha before taking over the North Bend restaurant.
Herb Angell, the boating law administrator for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, said Bird's death is the eighth this year on Nebraska waterways. The state averages about five deaths per year, Angell said.
The search for Bird was conducted by the Colfax County Sheriff's Office with the aid of a Nebraska State Patrol helicopter. Other agencies included in the search include the Game and Parks Commission, the Loup River Public Power District and Union Pacific Railroad.
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